Poson full moon day is associated with the official introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arhath Mahinda around 236 B.C. This happened over 250 years after the passing away of Buddha. During this long period of time did Buddhism exist in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)? Mahavansa the great chronicle of Sri Lanka, Deepawansa the History of the Island and Samathapasadika the Pali translation of the Sinhala commentaries of the Vinaya Pitaka; mentions of three visits by the Buddha, during his lifetime to this island. First visit took place in the fifth month after the enlightenment. The Naga Maniakkhika of Kalyani, we are told, accepted the Buddhist faith during the first visit of the master. The second visit took place in the fifth year after the Enlightenment. This visit was to save two clans from an impending war. After settling there dispute the Buddha preached the Doctrine and eighty kotis of Nagas were converted. Three years later the Buddha visited the island again at the request of Maniakkhika, during which Buddha is said to have left the imprint of his foot on the peak of Sumana Mountain (Adam's peak).
What is interesting is the fact Mahavansa was written 1100 years, Deepawansa after 900 years, Samathapasadika after 1000 years after the passing away of the Buddha. Dr. E. W. Adikaram in his Ph.D (London) thesis, a brilliant masterpiece of original research, "Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon" says: "these visits are recorded only in the Deepawansa, Samathapasadika and Mahavansa. No mention of is made of them in any part of the Pali Canon. This negative evidence, though a weighty one, is not sufficient for us to arrive at a decision and deny the truth of this tradition. This tradition may probably have risen from the arrival, before the advent of Mahinda of some Buddhist missionaries from India and also from the existence in Ceylon of a considerable number of Buddhists among the earlier inhabitants, namely the Yakkhas and the Nagas.
The Mahiyangana thupa, says the grate chronicle, existed in Ceylon long before the arrival of Mahinda. When the Buddha first visited Ceylon the deva Mahasumana of the Sumanakuta Mountain requested the Buddha to give him something to worship. The Master took a handful of hairs from his head and gave it to the deva. The latter enshrined it respectively in a thupa which he built at the place where the Master had sat. After passing away of the Buddha, the Thera Sarabahu, a disciple of the thera Sariputta, brought the collar bone of the Buddha and deposited in the same thupa. Later Uddhaculabhaya, the son of king Devanampiyatissa's brother's, saw the wondrous cetiya and covered it over afresh and made it thirty cubits high. Still later king Dutthagamini, dwelling there while he made war upon the Damilas, built a mantle cetiya over it eighty cubits high". Dr. Adikaram goes on to say: "the arrival of princess Bhaddakacchana and her retinue too, brings us to the same or more decisive conclusion'. Bhaddakacchana was the youngest daughter of Pandu, a cousin of the Buddha. She is said to be very closely related to the Buddha, and one may rightly infer that she and her friends were not all ignorant of the teachings of there royal Kinsman.... Secondly we are told they came disguised as nuns (Pabbajita)... considering the locality from which they came and their connections with the Buddha’s family, it is very likely that this word (Pabbajita) signified Buddhist bhikkhunies".
What was the society like before the advent of Arhath Mahinda in Sri Lanka? Again we turn to Dr. Adikaram book.
1. Brahmanism, from the very beginning, since the arrival of Vijaya and his followers in about the year 483 B.C. the Brahmis enjoyed a prominent status in Ceylon. There were Brahmanas who came along with Vijaya to Ceylon. Upatissa was one of them. He founded the village Uppatissagama which was for some time the capital of Ceylon. The same Brahmana held the post of chaplain (purohita) to king Vijaya. Pandukabhaya as a young price received his education under the brahmana named Pandula. The son of the latter became in due course the chaplain to Pandukabhaya (394 - 307 B.C.). When Devanampiyatissa sent presents to Ashoka, the price Arittha was accompanied by the king's chaplain who was a Brahmana. The presence of these Brahmanas naturally implies the existence of there religious beliefs in Ceylon at that time.
2. Worship of Yaksas: King Pandukabhaya built a temple for the Yaksa Cittaraja. The conditions, in pre-Buddhist Ceylon of the Yaksa cult appear to have been exactly similar to those in North India in the time of the Buddha; and in spite of the adoption of Buddhism as the national religion of the earlier Yaksa worship flourished side among the masses and has persisted down to the modern times.
3. Tree Deities: Pandukabhaya fixed a Banyan tree near the western gate of Anuradhapura as the abode of Vaisravana, and a Palmyra palm as that of Vyadhadeva. Here we have two instances of the worship of tree deities in pre Buddhist Ceylon.
4. Patron Deities: the Vyadha-deva, mention above was the patron deity of the hunters. Another such deity was Kammara-deva, or god of the blacksmiths. In addition to those deities of particular trades these was also a guardian deity for the whole of Anuradhapura city.
5. Jainism: Pandukabhaya is said to have built dwelling places for the Niganthas (Jains) named Jotiya and Kumbanda. Another Nigantha called Giri lived in the locality where Jotiya was. The monastery of Giri was demolished by king Vattagamini Abhaya (29-17 B.C) and in its place was built the Abhayagirivihara, which in subsequent times, played an important part in the history of Buddhism in Ceylon. Ever since the arrival of Vijaya, there was a constant flow of immigrants to Ceylon from India.
6. Paribbajakas, Ajivakas etc: the Paribbajakas, a class of wondering teachers or Sophists and Ajivakas the followers of Makkhali Gosala (contemporary of the Buddha) too were known in early Ceylon. Pandukabhaya built a monastery for the Paribbajakas and another for the Ajivakas
...... As shown in the preceding pages, there lived in pre-Mahindian Ceylon, people belonging to almost every religious sect then existing -in India. Even Ajivakas who were, by no means, so numerous as the followers of the Buddha, are mentioned as living in Ceylon. How then is one to account for the absence of any Buddhists? The only explanation possible is that silence was observed with regard to there existence in order to create a dark background on the canvas on which the enthusiastic narrator of Buddhist history might successfully paint his glowing picture of Mahinda's miraculous conversion of the island.
Again, when we consider how rapidly the conversion of Ceylon (Lanka) took place, it is difficult to believe that the people were till then entirely ignorant of the teaching. After the very first discourse of Mahinda forty thousand people including the king embraced the Buddhist faith. His other discourses, too were equally successful (seven discourses followed in all) all these facts help us to conclude the Buddhism did exist in Ceylon (Lanka) before the time of Mahinda, though it was only after Devanampiyatissa's conversion that it became the state religion of the country. Moreover, it may be justly said that Mahinda's mission had as its chief aim not to mere introduction of the teachings of the Buddha to Ceylon but the formation of the monastic order and thereby the "establishment' of the Sasana in the island". The arrival of Arhath Mahinda took place 236 years after the passing away of the Buddha.
During this long period of over two hundred years how did Buddhism fare in India? In the "2500 years of Buddhism" the Indian government publication, Dr. A. C. Banerjee says, "the Buddha's saying and their commentaries were handed down orally from teacher to disciples. Unlike the Vedic texts, how ever not enough care was not taken for the preservation of the actual words of the teacher, not to speak of their interpretations. In the Mahaparinibbhana Sutta, the teacher apprehended that his sayings might suffer distortion, and so as noted above, he cautioned his disciples about the four ways in which his instructions were to be verified. A centaury is a long time, and about a hundred years after his passing, differences arose among the monks about the actual words of the teacher and their interpretations. Once the monks took the liberty of bringing dissensions to the Sangha, they went on multiplying till the number of sects reached the figure of eighteen in the second and third centuries after the Buddha's death". Writing in the same publication, Bhikshu Jinananda MA. PhD (London), Professor of Pali and Buddhalogy, Nalanda Post Graduate Pali institute, says: "Moggaliputta Tissa is reputed to have converted the Emperor Asoka to the Buddhist faith. According to the Mahavansa, he was born in a Brahmana family and learned the three Vedas before he was sixteen. He was however won over to the new faith by the Thera Siggava and very soon attained to Arhatship with all its attendant supernatural powers. It was under his influences that the emperor made over to the Buddhist order his son Mahinda and Daughter Sangamitta. These two crossed to Lanka and converted to the Buddhist faith.
....... The venerable monk instructed the king in the holy religion of the Buddha for a week. The king thereafter convoked an assembly of the whole community of Bhikkhus. He called the bhikkhus of several persuasions to his presence and asked them to expound the teachings of the blessed one. They set fourth there misguided beliefs, such as the doctrine of the external soul, and so on. These heretical monks numbering sixty thousands were expelled from the brotherhood by the king. He thereafter interrogated the true believers about the doctrine taught by the blessed one and they answered that it was Vibhajjavada (the religion of analytical reasoning). When the Thera corroborated the truth of this answer, the king made request that the brotherhood should hold the Uposahta ceremony so that the whole community might be purified of evil elements. The Thera was made the guardian of the order.
Thera Tissa thereafter elected a thousand bhikkhus of the brotherhood who were well versed in the three Pitakas to make a compilation of the true doctrine. For nine moths he worked with the monks and the compilation of the true Tripitaka was completed. This council was held in the same manner and with the same zeal as those of Mahakassapa and Thera Yasa (first and second Buddhist councils) respectively. In the midst of the council Thera Tissa set fourth the Kathavatthupakarana wherein the heretical doctrines were thoroughly examined and refuted. Thus ended the third council in which a thousand bhikkhus took part. One of the momentous results of this council was the dispatch of missionaries to the different countries of the world for the propagation of the Saddhamma. From the Edicts of Asoka we know of the various Buddhist missions he sent to far - off countries in Asia, Africa and Europe."
The third Buddhist council was held in Pataliputra (Present Patna) in the year 253 B.C. Megasthenes the Greek ambassadors to the Imperial Court of Chandraguppta (Asoka's Grandfather) has described in detail the beauty and splendour of the well planned city of gorgeous wooden buildings, which was 9 miles in length and 11/2 miles in breadth in the shape of a parallelogram. Greek Ambassadors to Bindusara (Asoka's father) was Deimachos and Dionysios was Greek Ambassador to Asoka at Pataliputra. Asoka's thirteenth edict, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is mentioned as one of the many countries in which conquest by the Dhamma had been made by him. Dr. S. Paranavitharana in his book "The Greek and the Mauryas" makes reference to Yavana (Greek) kings with whom Dharmasoka maintained friendly relations and the succession of rulers in the kingdoms founded by Alexander's general's, in the Magadha kingdom. It was Anatogona Gonata who maintained friendly relations with Dharmasoka, and gave permission for the preaching of the Buddha-dharma in their respective territories. Mahamahendra-sthavira, who according to these sources, was a brother and not a son of Asoka, is said to have visited all these three countries, and preached the Dharma some time before he came to Ceylon.
Dr. S. Paranavitharana in his book "Sinhalayo" says: "when saint Mahinda preached Buddhism for the first time in Ceylon, he gave the explanations, as he had received them from his teachers, of certain words and expressions in the Pali Sermons. These were handed down orally with great care in the monasteries; and later teachers continued to add to this exegetical literature".
(Writer is a Doctor of-Medicine and Master-of-Arts in Buddhist studies)Email firstname.lastname@example.org